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The Paradoxes of Public Opinion about Global Warming

- March 1, 2008

bq. Despite the growing scientific consensus about the risks of global warming and climate change, the mass media frequently portray the subject as one of great scientific controversy and debate. And yet previous studies of the mass public’s subjective assessments of the risks of global warming and climate change have not sufficiently examined public informedness, public confidence in climate scientists, and the role of personal efficacy in affecting global warming outcomes. By examining the results of a survey on an original and representative sample of Americans, we find that these three forces—informedness, confidence in scientists, and personal efficacy—are related in interesting and unexpected ways, and exert significant influence on risk assessments of global warming and climate change. In particular, more informed respondents both feel less personally responsible for global warming, and also show less concern for global warming. We also find that confidence in scientists has unexpected effects: respondents with high confidence in scientists feel less responsible for global warming, and also show less concern for global warming. These results have substantial implications for the interaction between scientists and the public in general, and for the public discussion of global warming and climate change in particular.

That’s from this paper by Paul Kellstedt, Sammy Zahran, and Arnold Vedlitz. It was featured yesterday on John Tierney’s blog at the New York Times.

The finding that information leads to less concern for global warming is obviously counterintuitive, and spawned a number of comments at Tierney’s blog. The few I read were by global warming skeptics who felt vindicated, as in the first comment on Tierney’s post:

bq. Educated well informed people who trust the scientific process understand that the predictions of imminent doom by CO2 are simply hogwash and that we can afford to take our time.

I think the best explanation is a more prosaic one. Kellstedt et al. did not actually measure what respondents knew. They asked respondents how much they felt that they knew.

bq. We measure a respondent’s level of information by asking each respondent to report “how informed do you consider yourself to be” about global warming and climate change…

This is not a measure of knowledge per se, but a measure of perceived informedness. So their finding regarding information simply suggests that people who feel more informed are less concerned about global warming. Kellstedt and colleagues write in the conclusion:

bq. It should be noted that the information effects reported in this article are limited to self-reported information. Objective measures of informedness about global warming and climate change might produce different effects. And indeed there is some scholarly evidence to suggest that this might be the case. In their models of mass assessments of the risks of genetically modified foods, Durant and Legge found that self-reported informedness and objective measures of informedness were almost entirely uncorrelated, and that their effects worked in opposite directions. Clearly, this is an area that is ripe for subsequent research.

Thus, we have no way of knowing whether actual information — i.e., knowledge of key scientific findings about global warming — would produce this same counterintuitive effect.

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